Newcastle United make the short journey to Middlesbrough on Saturday as they look to edge ever closer to an instant return to the top flight. Their clash with the ‘Boro may not mean as much to the fans as a Tyne-Wear derby but it is a game they will be hoping to win never-the-less.
Following on from one of their best spells of the season in recent weeks confidence must be brimming at the moment in the Newcastle camp. The bookmakers certainly believe that Newcastle are dead certs for promotion with some offering odds as low as 1 / 4 for them to win the Championship. At the beginning of the season Middlesbrough were up there with the Magpies as one of the big favourites for promotion but it has not worked out so well for the Teessiders this season. They are currently 10th in the table and are now five points off the play-off positions. Saturday will be a must-win game for Gordon Strachan’s men if they want to make the play-offs.
Boro’s side is almost unrecognisable from the team which started the season with a number of players joining from north of the border. Chris Hughton’s biggest selection headache will be at left-back with key player Jose Enrique a doubt after limping off in the first half of his comeback from injury. Hungarian Tamas Kadar is on standby to come in if needed. Hughton’s other main injury doubts are over Wayne Routledge and Alan Smith who both missed last weekend’s 6-1 demolition of Barnsley.
The only long term absentees in the Newcastle squad are Steven Taylor, Joey Barton and Shola Ameob – three players who would be pushing for first team places if fit. Barton has been out for around six months with a foot injury and Hughton has understandably been cautious with rushing him back too soon. He made a playing return this week in a friendly match against Hibernian, where he featured in the first half. Hughton said of the 27 year old: “His progress has been good in the last few weeks and he’s very much enjoying being back in the fold ” Meanwhile, centre-half Taylor is continuing his rehabilitation from a knee injury that threatened to rule him out for the season. He hopes to return as soon as possible with the incentive of end of season silverware spurring him on. Taylor said: “I have a strength coach I work with every day, Michael Pellegrino, who has given me the belief I will be back this season. I actually wrote my season off when I did my injury, but he has given me the confidence I can return before the end of the season. All I want to do is lift that cup and get that medal round my neck. I have always said I want to win something with Newcastle, and this is the best way to do it.” Local lad Taylor picked up some individual silverware this week when he was named Sport Newcastle’s Sport Personality of the year. The award has previously been won by the likes of Alan Shearer, Jonny Wilkinson and cricketer Steve Harmison.
In Taylor’s absence January signing Mike Williamson has stepped into the breach and ensured the 24-year-old has hardly been missed. It could have been a major problem with Taylor being ruled out since the start of the year but aside from a few games Newcastle have remained defensively sound. The No.6 is a no-nonsense defender who tries to keep things simple and standing well over six foot tall Williamson loses few aerial duels. It looks more than likely that he will be swapping places next season with his old club Portsmouth, for whom he did not make a single appearance. For now Williamson is trying to keep with feet on the ground and not concentrating on promotion just yet. He said: “It’s always nice to enjoy days like Saturday (Barnsley) but our next game’s Middlesbrough away and that’s the one we don’t want to lose. When we’re actually mathematically promoted we can talk about it but at the minute the job’s not done and we know how easy it is to get sucked back in (to the chasing pack). It’s about not getting complacent and taking nothing for granted.”
Watch all Newcastle matches live on your computer – click here